Image: CDC

Pandemic Finally Declared, One Month Late

COMMENTARY: Fearing fear itself, the world’s top health official renders the term useless

Robert Roy Britt
4 min readMar 11, 2020


The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the global epidemic of coronavirus outbreaks a pandemic, something several health officials have expected for more than a month and which some say is long overdue. The thing is, there’s no agreement among global and national health officials over how to define the word or when to use it, and language from WHO’s director-general today suggests “pandemic” either needs to be seriously redefined or stricken from the viral-disease lexicon.

One infectious disease expert used the P-word exactly five weeks ago.

“To me, it appears we are currently in the early stages of a mild pandemic with cases in over two dozen countries and sustained human-to-human spread established by this virus,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, told me on Feb. 5.

Today I asked Adalja if the declaration came too late and if that had any impact on precautions taken.

“Most persons believed this to be a pandemic for some time and were taking the actions required for a pandemic response,” Adalja said. “I do think that diagnostic testing scale-up might have occurred quicker with less emphasis on travel history if a pandemic had been declared earlier.”

I also asked Adalja if the term “pandemic” needed redefining. “A pandemic refers to an infectious disease being present and spreading throughout the globe,” he said. “When that is present, there should be no controversy in declaring a pandemic.”

What happened in 5 weeks

By Feb. 5, 24,554 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, had been confirmed, with 491 deaths, according to the WHO. All but 191 of those cases were in China. But the virus had already spread to at least 24 countries on multiple continents, including at least 11 cases in the United States.

Two days earlier, on Feb. 3, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)…



Robert Roy Britt

Founder/editor of Wise & Well on Medium & the Writer's Guide at & author of Make Sleep Your Superpower